Overview:

Do prayers do anything? Yes and no; says one Christian apologist. The difference reveals the hypocrisy.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

“Faith” has two meanings. It can be permission to believe without a good reason, or it can be belief well grounded in evidence. Changing the definition as necessary is a game that many Christians play.

We find a similar have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach with Greg Koukl, a popular Christian apologist from Stand to Reason who responded in contradictory ways to two similar tragedies.

Case 1: critical injury to a staff member

In a podcast just before Christmas a few years ago, Koukl talked about the health of Melinda, a staff member who was in critical condition after a recent head injury. His appeal for prayer was what you’d expect.

I don’t know what God’s thinking about things, but I know what Christians are doing and I hope you’re doing with us—you’re praying like crazy. And that’s what we want you to keep doing—praying Melinda out of this….

Lots of people have come out of [medical situations like this without supernatural assistance], but with God’s help, of course, that gives us a massive leg up and that’s why your prayers for Melinda and for the Stand to Reason team are the most important thing right now….

God is holding us up. He’s keeping us on our feet, which I attribute to his grace and to your prayers, so keep it up.

Koukl isn’t downplaying expectations with tepid claims for prayer that it’s meditative or therapeutic for the person praying. No, he’s making the familiar Christian claim that prayer is useful. It causes positive, big change. It delivers in the here and now.

Case 2: Texas church shooting

Six weeks earlier, Koukl responded to another tragedy within the Christian community. A shooter had killed 25 and wounded 20 in a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas on November 5, 2017.

Presumably, people in a church in fear for their lives were doing a lot of praying. That obviously didn’t stop the injuries and deaths. Koukl illustrated this with a couple of comments from atheists: “The murdered victims were in a church! If prayers did anything, they’d still be alive” and, “It seems your direct line to God is not working.”

Christian response: be careful critiquing worldviews

Koukl responded that it’s a mistake to critique another worldview from inside your own. He illustrated his point with an exchange during a Christopher Hitchens debate with Jay Richards. Hitchens said, “Do you believe in the resurrection?” When Richards assented, Hitchens responded, “I rest my case.”

Here’s an example of mine that I think illustrates Koukl’s point. Suppose Hitchens was making lasagna and Richards was making barbeque pork. Now imagine Hitchens criticizes Richards by saying, “You can’t use barbeque sauce in Italian cuisine.” That may be true, but the rules of Italian cuisine don’t apply to barbeque recipes. Similarly, “Resurrections are ridiculous” is true within atheism but not Christianity.

The first problem with Koukl’s point is that atheism isn’t a worldview. It’s just one answer (“No”) to one question (“Do you have a god belief?”). What he wants to respond to instead is a naturalistic worldview, the belief that only natural, not supernatural, forces operate in the universe.

The second problem is that Richards already does pretty much accept that worldview—that evidence is important, that hypotheses should be tested, and so on. I’m sure he uses evidence to cross a street, learn a language, or select medical treatment. (Of course, Richards would reject any claim that only natural forces are in effect.) When followers of Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba claim that he could be in two places at once or when Uri Geller claimed to be using the supernatural rather than performing stage magic, I’m sure Richards is as skeptical as the typical atheist.

It’s not like there are two worldviews, Christianity and naturalism, and they’re equally plausible. Naturalism is the default. We all accept that science informs us so well because it takes a naturalistic approach. Christians live in a house of naturalism, but they go into their Christian room from time to time.

The value of prayer

Despite what he would soon say about prayer’s value in Melinda’s situation, Koukl said,

People from the outside think for some reason (and maybe Christians have given them reason to think this) but that if God really does exist and we pray to him, then we get what we want from God, which includes physical protection.

Koukl may not think it works this way, but Jesus did:

I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete (John 16:23–4).

The story eliminates any second-guessing about caveats when we read a few verses later,

Then Jesus’s disciples said, “Now you are speaking clearly and without figures of speech” (John 16:29).

See also: National Day of Prayer Wasting Time

Koukl continues:

It strikes me as such an absurd thought, why anybody who has even a modest understanding of Christianity and the history of what Christians have endured for thousands of years . . . [would] think that this [shooting] is somehow inconsistent with Christianity.

Uh, because Jesus promised that prayers are answered? Or is this a trick question?

Jesus promised persecution

Koukl next claims that we shouldn’t expect protection from murderers. To underscore this, we get a little persecution porn as Koukl ticks off verses where Jesus promised that Christians will be persecuted.

Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. (1 Peter 4:12–13)

[Jesus said:] “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10)

Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. (1 John 3:13)

Koukl tells us that prayer works and that we should pray for Melinda, and the Bible agrees (“Ask and you will receive”). But he laughs at the foolish atheists who think that God would answer prayers for protection against a murder.

Koukl again:

There is … no rationale, no line of thinking that if God does exist that only good things happen to people, particularly people who believe in God, especially Christians.

Nope. The Bible promises exactly that in both the Old Testament and the New:

The LORD will keep you from all harm—he will watch over your life (Psalm 121:7; see also 34:17).

No harm overtakes the righteous, but the wicked have their fill of trouble (Proverbs 12:21).

We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the One who was born of God keeps them safe, and the evil one cannot harm them (1 John 5:18).

Let’s return to the issue as Koukl himself raised it. The original atheist objection was: “The murdered victims were in a church! If prayers did anything, they’d still be alive.” And those objections were correct.

Koukl juggles two Bible claims, that Christians will have hardships and that Jesus promised that prayers are answered. He takes the typical Christian route of encouraging prayer when it suits him, but when slapped with inconvenient evidence that prayer does nothing, he reminds us that Christians will have hardships.

This does nothing to fill the awkward silence when Christians pray for something and only chance replies.

Prayer is an act of doubt, not faith.
If you really thought your god was watching over everything
and you genuinely trusted in his “plan,”
you wouldn’t be praying in the first place.
— seen on the internet

CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware and is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...